On being a gay mathematician

Mathematics is mathematics?

I grew up thinking that mathematics was the most unprejudiced of subjects, devoid of subjective interpretation by human beings. Mathematics is mathematics, after all—it isn’t male or female, white or black, or gay or straight.

I was wrong.  Mathematics is done by people and so the environment in which we pursue the subject is susceptible to our limitations. I’ll zero in on this point by illustrating with my own experience.

Growing up gay in rural Ontario during the 1980s was an isolating experience culturally, although it did give me lots of time to think and helped foster my creativity. I had two queer friends (one gay the other lesbian) and we kept to ourselves and rarely talked about our sexuality with family or friends for fear of rejection. While I focused mostly on my studies, it was tough never being able to express my teenage romantic feelings to anyone. I had a small circle of friends and trusted a few with my “secret” (which likely wasn’t that much of a secret by the end of high school).

At university, things got better. I moved to a larger town and there were more queer people there. I attended my first Pride Parade in Toronto in the early 1990s, which was a liberating experience.  I do, however, have memories of the dark looks I received while holding hands with a male friend as we wandered too far from the safe borders of the parade. I knew of one gay professor at the University: the late James Stewart, the author of the famous Calculus text.

Graduate school

I didn’t experience explicit discrimination until I was working on my doctorate. One of the professors in my Department told me to be careful about being open about my sexuality, as it would make professors and students uncomfortable.  He thought he was doing me a favor, I think. I nodded politely and buried the incident away in my memory. Being gay often involves so many of these small defeats, these small let downs, that it becomes part of our everyday experience.

When you expect less, less is what you get.

Being gay isn’t only about who you love. It may also influence how you walk, dress, or what kind of music you like. Such choices define us and make us unique, as I understand now. While growing up, however, LGBT folks learn to edit ourselves. As the outspoken Irish drag queen Panti Bliss said in her wonderful oration, we check ourselves.

We edit ourselves by asking internally a series of questions.  While lecturing does the audience think less of me if they know I am gay? When colleagues talk about their family over dinner is it OK for me to join in and talk about husband too? Am I acting too queer in front of my students?

The professoriate

As an established, full professor, I am fairly resistant to the opinions of others. However, I always come back to that nagging self-editing. It’s a kind of eternal doubt that you carry as a gay person. While I don’t expect overt prejudice from other professors or students, the doubt lingers in the back of my mind that I will be rejected simply for who I am.

One painful incident remains with me to this day. When I was an assistant professor, I heard that one of my departmental colleagues was uncomfortable with my gayness. He told a mutual friend that I didn’t really fit into the department.

That experience was a professional nadir for me. My initial reaction was to retreat away from my departmental colleagues. At the same time, I realized I had to be exactly who I was. Years later, I held a Department party at my home with my spouse there and everyone came and had a great time. Things got better, but the story was as painful then to hear, and is difficult now to retell.

Fast forward to now

I work at a queer friendly university, where I am out and proud. I have many LGBT colleagues, and I have many allies among my straight co-workers. Our Deans tweet about LGBT inclusion and professors put rainbow flags on their Facebook profiles during Pride month.

My collaborators in the larger math community respect me for who I am, and are warm and welcoming to my husband when they meet him. I am sure there are some who are not so welcoming, but no one would likely say I don’t fit in. Fit into what exactly? And why would I want to fit there in the first place?

I try to carry forward the kindness shown to me to others around matters of inclusion. Being different is cool, and I’ve come to realize that diversity is a strength. My responsibility to younger professors and my students is to support them on their academic journey, whatever their race, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The ideal remains with me that mathematics is mathematics regardless of who’s doing it. It should be the goal for everyone, and it carries across all academic subjects. I have doubt, however, whether we are close to that ideal.  Signage in Ryerson washrooms, affirming trans person’s rights to use them, was torn down. That this would happen at Ryerson University, which visibly welcomes diversity and inclusion, saddens me.

More work to do

During this Pride month, there is much to celebrate and there is much more work to do. We’ve made enormous strides towards inclusivity in my discipline and in academia more generally.

To my straight readers and colleagues who comprise the majority: you have an important role to play in supporting LGBT equality. While it takes extra effort, make sure to be inclusive of your LGBT friends.

Ask our opinion. Hear our voices. I recently had a mathematician ask me my thoughts over coffee about an LGBT issue in the news. He patiently listened while I described my point of view. That was an awesome example of inclusivity!

As a gay person, I hope one day the LGBT community will be fully accepted in academia and society, and we can learn not to self-edit ourselves so much. I want my mathematical research and teaching to be judged on its own merit. We don’t have to agree or be the same, nor should that be the goal.

I just want a shot at happiness and a successful career like everyone else.

Anthony Bonato

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